Not so long ago, Britain’s vaccination program was the envy of the world, as the UK edged out almost every other country in immunizing its people against COVID-19.
The vaccination campaign went so well that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made vaccines the cornerstone of the government’s pandemic strategy, avoiding requirements for masks and vaccine passports.
But now the much-vaunted campaign has come to a standstill – an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey found that 16-29 year olds are most reluctant to get vaccinated – and Britain is lagging behind. Canada, France, Italy, Spain and several other countries in the proportion of people fully vaccinated. Even the European Union as a whole – often mocked in Britain for its slow start on vaccinations – has almost caught up with the UK
Infections are now on the rise in Britain, topping 50,000 a day this week. The seven-day moving average rose 18 percent. On Friday, the ONS estimated that one in 55 people in England was infected with the virus, the highest infection rate since last January, when the pandemic peaked. Britain records more daily cases than France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.
Mr Johnson is under increasing pressure to launch vaccinations and reconsider government resistance to mask warrants and vaccine passports. “The government has eased its foot on the brakes, giving the impression that the pandemic is behind us and life is back to normal,” the British Medical Association said this week. “The Westminster government is deliberately negligent in taking no further action to reduce the spread of infection. “
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One of the reasons for the slowdown in immunization has been the government’s indecision regarding immunization of children. After months of debate, health officials began immunizing children ages 12 to 15 on September 20, much later than Canada and many other countries – even though the government’s science advisory body, the Committee joint on vaccination and immunization, had concluded that there were only marginal benefits. This caused confusion about the shots and as a result the pickup was slow.
Britain has also fallen victim to the early success of its vaccination campaign, as immunity appears to be waning, especially among older people who received their second injection last winter.
Several studies have shown that the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines wanes after five or six months. The Zoe Covid study, published in the British Medical Journal in August, found that the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine fell from 88% to 74% after six months, while the protection of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine fell from 77% to 67 percent. The UK relied primarily on the AstraZeneca jab, which other studies have also shown to lose effectiveness faster than the Pfizer shot.
The government has launched a booster program for adults over 50, but so far the pace of vaccinations has been slow. Experts say this is in part because many people don’t have the same sense of urgency, especially since the government dropped nearly all pandemic restrictions in July.
“We are at a tipping point with increasing levels of infection against a backdrop of declining vaccine-induced immunity and easing of all restrictions,” said Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick. “We must do everything to encourage eligible people to receive their booster shots and to vaccinate healthy 12 to 15 year olds. “
Mr Johnson has so far resisted calls for new restrictions and social mandates. Instead, he’s sticking to his Plan A, which focuses on booster shots and immunizations for children. “Our plan has always predicted that the number of cases will increase roughly now, and we certainly see it in the numbers,” the prime minister said on Friday. “We are seeing high levels of infection, but they are not outside of what was expected. “
There have been some positive signs. The number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 has tended to around 1,000 per day, about a quarter of the level reached last January. Deaths have also been much lower – dropping from over 1,000 a day to just over 100.
However, health experts say both numbers have risen and they are concerned about the strain hospitals will take this winter when the flu and other seasonal viruses take hold. Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned this week that daily COVID-19 cases could reach 100,000 this winter in the worst-case scenario.
There are also concerns about a new version of the Delta variant, called Delta Plus, which has surfaced in small but growing numbers across England. Scientists say it could be up to 15% more transmissible, but so far it has not been called a variant of concern.
The NHS Confederation, which represents the National Health Service trusts, has urged the government to introduce requirements for masks and vaccine certificates and to advise people to work from home. “The government shouldn’t wait for COVID infections to skyrocket and NHS pressure to be very high before the panic alarm sounds,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Confederation.
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